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Sisters use earth to educate

Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz are, of course, sisters. But they are also Sisters. The duo joined School Sisters of Notre Dame in the fall of 1956 and 1957, respectively, upon high school graduation. Their time at the Mankato-based school instilled in them a love of education, which they’ve taken with them wherever they go. The two sisters were the oldest of nine children raised on a farm just east of Madison. After attending the School Sisters of Notre Dame, they each went their separate ways. Kay spent time in Wanda, Minn., as a Pastoral Administrator at St. Mathias, and taught religion classes at St. Anne’s in Wabasso for a while. Annette spent time teaching in Jordan, Buffalo, and Waterloo, Iowa. She then spent some time in the Dakotas living among the Native population. Annette also worked for the Rural Life offices in Iowa. The pair of sisters, however, found their way back home to Madison, drawn their by their shared love of education and the land. Today Kay, 73, and Annette, 72, run the Earthrise Farm Foundation, which is located on their home farm site. The farm, rooted in the prairie farmland of western Minnesota and dedicated to renewing connections to the Earth, is there to provide educational programs and spiritual opportunities pertaining to cosmogenesis, Earth literacy, organic farming, sustainability, food and nutrition. “I often ask myself, ‘How did we get back here?'” Annette said. “It was education. Education brought us back to the land.” The sisters have built up their home farm site and reworked its function. They moved an old one-room school building in from a few miles away that was going to be torn down. The building serves as a classroom for the many activities going on at the farm. “Admittedly, we prefer to be outside with our classes,” Kay said. “That is where the real learning takes place.” Outside the old school building, the sisters constructed raised-bed gardens for school children to plant, grow and learn from. They also moved in a number of smaller buildings from surrounding farm sites there were headed to the scrap heap.     Those numerous shelters house the sister’s poultry flocks. They even have a small building with a kiln in it for working with pottery. “We built the greenhouse, and converted an old building into a kitchen,” Kay said. In addition, they constructed a yurt, which is a circular canvas and wood structure used by nomads in Mongolia, Siberia and Turkey. The yurt is used for housing guests, and is rented out to families, groups and individuals for rural retreats. In keeping with education as theme, the sisters installed a nature walk that twists and winds through their grove. Along the path, there are beautifully painted works of art and text explaining the creation of and evolution of life on earth. “Sustainability is a great focus of the farm,” Kay said. “As a society, we are not on a sustainable path. We need to learn to live a sustainable lifestyle, or we will use up our resources.” As part of sustainable living, the sisters grow a lot of their own food. For several years, the duo ran a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture operation. In a CSA, families and individuals buy shares in a farm, and for their membership fee receive a portion of the produce grown on the farm. “It got to be more work than we could handle,” Kay said. “So now we sell a lot of our surplus at farmers markets and directly here on the farm.” Now in their early 70s, the sisters are looking down the road to what will become of their Earthrise Farm in the future. The sisters want to see their mission continued. They want to see the school children still come to their farm to learn about soil health, sustainability, to hear stories and enjoy the great outdoors. “What we are looking for now, is someone to carry on what we’ve started,” Annette said. “We look down the driveway each time someone pulls in and wonder if they might be the ones to continue the work we’ve started here,” Kay adds jokingly. All joking aside, however, the sister are seriously looking for someone, a couple or even a family that can continue the work of the Earthrise Farm Foundation. “It’s education and a love of the land that drew us back here,” Kay said. “We don’t want to see this all go away.”

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